The original Basis B1 Band was damn near the greatest activity tracker in the land, but it wasn't. It had all the sensors (and then some) it took to get there, but its performance was inconsistent, and perhaps more importantly, it was bulky and ugly. Well, the Basis Peak is here now to right those wrongs, and guess what? It mostly does.
What Is It?
It's the new fitness tracker from Basis, and it takes the form of a handsome digital watch. Flip it over and you'll see a suite of sensors that monitor your motion, heart rate, skin temperature, and sweat levels. It can tell when you're running, walking, cycling, or sleeping without you having to do a thing. It syncs via Bluetooth with your smartphone where you can analyze your habits. Eventually it will do a passing impression of a smartwatch by displaying notifications for SMS, calls, email, and events, but that functionality isn't enabled yet. [UPDATE: The new firmware with notifications has rolled out. See larger update below.]
Who's It For?
People looking to be in better shape than they currently are, and want as much information as possible. People who like routine: this watch places serious emphasis on building daily exercise habits. It's also great for people who exercise at the gym or do other workouts that wouldn't register on a standard step-counting activity tracker. Since the Peak can see your heart rate, it knows how much strain you're putting your body through.
It's hard to overstate just how massive an improvement the Peak is over the original B1 band. For starters, it's much thinner—so it doesn't jut off your wrist like a broken bone and catch on everything. The screen is much, much bigger and easier to read than the original. Even while running I didn't have any trouble spotting the time of day or my current heart rate. The B1 also had these horrible, finicky capacitive buttons for navigation, and the new Peak has no buttons at all. Instead it's covered in touch-sensitive Gorilla Glass 3, and you navigate by simple gestures. A swipe up or down to turn on/off the backlight. Swiping left or right to switch between screens. Basic, intuitive stuff.
One of the biggest improvements is the charging mechanism. Previously, you had to wiggle and squeeze the B1 into a thin, awkward, plastic housing at the end of a USB cord. It was lousy design. The Peak's charger is magnetic. You basically just drop the watch onto it, and it's charging. You can also just plug the dock into any micro USB cord you already have, which cuts down a little bulk if you're traveling.
Other improvements? The band is now a stretchier silicone, which is generally pretty comfortable to wear (just make sure you take it off every now and then). The original Basis was plastic and prone to terrible scratching. The Peak has a solid aluminum body and it feels pretty damn solid. Also, the heart rate sensor is now larger and protrudes out a little bit from the back of the watch, giving it greater skin contact. The previous version struggled to get a good read when you went for a run. This is meant to counter that problem. It's also now waterproof to 5 ATM (164 feet), though you can't track heart rate while swimming.
Setup is a breeze. Just turn it on, download the app, and sync it with your phone. You'll need a Basis account, which will act as a repository for all your activity data. You punch in a few personal stats (age/gender/height/weight), and that's basically it. All you really have to do from there is wear the watch. You don't have to remember to change modes when go to sleep or wake up, which is kind of a big deal. Most fitness trackers don't do that automatically, and those that do frequently mess it up. The Peak actually works: when I checked out the stats, it typically lined up with when I nodded off, or when I woke up in the middle of the night for the umpteenth time to write down my fleeting thoughts.
The main screen shows the time of day, as watches are wont to do. Swipe up, and it turns on the backlight, which lights the watch nice and evenly. Swipe down to turn the backlight off again. Tap the screen, and the date pops up. Swipe to the left, and you're looking at your real-time heart rate. Swipe up on that screen, and you can see today's step and caloric burn totals. Swipe left one more time, and you see all of your day's activities in one place—meaning if you went for a walk at 9am, and then went for a jog around noon, those activities would be displayed separately, and you'd see the duration and total steps for each. It's extremely intuitive and there aren't enough screens for you to get lost (yet).
That's pretty much it for the watch itself. Basis claims you get about four days of battery life between charges (depending on your activity level, which means that being extremely active might reduce battery life?) From what I've seen so far, that sounds about right.
But the watch is only really good for displaying your most recent activities. If you want to dive into your data, you'll open the app on your phone. From there there are a handful of screens to choose from:
- Dashboard. A quick look at your recent activities and your last sleep event. It basically aggregates data from the other screens, but it doesn't go too deep into any of them.
- Habits. Habits are, essentially, the goals you set. These could include walking 2,000 steps before noon, having a consistent bedtime, making sure you get up and walk around at least once an hour, and so on. The habits screen tells you how close (or how far) you are to hitting these goals. It's definitely more advanced compared to what you see on most other activity trackers, which are typically limited to setting a goal for steps taken.
- Activity Feed. This is where you get to geek out. You can see what your average heart rate was on your morning jog versus your afternoon bike ride home from the office. You can see how much time you spend in REM sleep vs deep sleep vs light sleep.
- Chart View. This gives you a lot of detail about your last four hours of activity laid out in a easy-to-understand visual.
The app looks good, visually, but it's a bit convoluted. The data you're looking for isn't always where you think it's going to be. But if the app isn't your thing, not to worry. All the data is easily viewable on the web. The web layout is similar to the app, but I actually find it easier to use, and it's definitely easier to make sense of the charts when you see them on a big screen.
Generally I found the Peak to be pretty comfortable to wear. Its clasp didn't dig into my wrist while typing, and it didn't rip out any of my (copious) wrist-hair. There's a caveat, though: You have to give your wrist a break, even if the watch doesn't need charging and you don't feel like it. I left the watch on for too long (about 36 hours) on a hot day in Hawaii. I was very sweaty. Suddenly, before I knew it, my wrist started itching, and lo and behold, I started breaking out in these poison ivy looking bumps. Wait wait, don't freak out just yet.
This is actually pretty common for my skin, unfortunately. If it doesn't get enough air-flow, it's prone to breaking out into these little rashes. This has happened before when testing other wearables, and it usually comes from wearing them too tightly. The rash isn't at a point where the metal was touching, so I really think it's just a breathability issue. (Actually, I think the whole Fitbit Force recall last year might have been caused by the same thing, but I can't prove it.) This is tricky, because if you don't wear the Peak "snugly" it won't be able to read your heart (this is the case with any wrist-worn heart rate monitor). Basically, the moral of the story is that you need to wash it off once a day, and give your wrist some breathing time. I've been switching wrists every other day, and that seems to be working fine.
Anyway, I've actually found the watch to be extremely accurate, much more so than other wrist worn heart rate monitors I've tested. I checked my pulse manually during testing and compared it to the Peak's readings, and I would say it's still slightly behind chest-straps in terms of accuracy, but it's very close—typically within just a few BPM—and the convenience factor makes it far preferable.
But unfortunately, it doesn't really replace them, either. The most popular running apps out there (like Runtastic, Endomondo, and Runkeeper, to name just a few) allow you to use a Bluetooth HRM to integrate heart rate data into the run you're tracking, which is very useful for training purposes. But even though the Peak is paired to your phone via Bluetooth it doesn't currently let these apps pull that data down, so you'd still need a separate heart rate monitor if you wanted that data integrated into your run. That's a big bummer. Maybe they'll be able to add that feature via software update someday. Speaking of software updates, Basis says the smartwatch-style notifications will be coming later this year in a firmware update.
One thing that's worth mentioning is that while the Peak gives you a glut of data about your activities, it's not always clear what to do with it. This is the same for pretty much all activity trackers, but it's especially pronounced here because there's just so much more data exposed. You can look at the chart view and see how your skin temperature and sweat levels varied throughout the day, but how does that knowledge benefit you? Very unclear. It's cool to see how much time you spent in REM sleep versus deep sleep, but so what? If your REM to deep ratio is all out of whack, how do you fix it?
Smartwatch notifications (section added February 2015)
This February, the Basis Peak got a new ability to display smartwatch notifications in a new firmware update. Does that make it a great smartwatch, too? Ehhh... not so much. I just spent the last couple weeks trying it out, and here are my findings.
Generally speaking, when the phone is connected, the notifications are pretty reliable. Your wrist usually buzzes about 5 seconds after your phone does. You can then swipe across the Peak's screen to read the first paragraph of the text, email, or calendar notification that you received, as well as notifications from the Peak app about how close you are to your goals. You can even swipe through multiple notifications at a time.
Unfortunately, the notifications are very much one-way. As in, you can see them, but you can't respond, or archive, or even dismiss the notification on your phone. That's a shame. Also, while the new Basis Peak app works with all modern iPhones, it's pretty limited in the selection of Android phones that it currently supports, and it doesn't yet work with Android 5.0 (Lollipop) at all. That meant I had to switch from my Nexus 6 to an HTC One M8 Google Play Edition that I hadn't yet upgraded to Lollipop in order to do a proper test.
Pairing the Peak with the M8 was fraught with problems, too, and even after I finally got it working, it never worked smoothly. If connection was broken (i.e. because I left the room without my phone) sometimes it would take hours before they would connect again.
Also, I wasn't able to test the new feature of using the Peak as a Bluetooth heart rate monitor for your favorite fitness app (Endomondo, Runkeeper, etc) because that feature doesn't yet work with Android devices. I assume it should work with iOS, but I wasn't able to test it myself. Ultimately, the verdict is this: adding notifications certainly isn't a bad thing, but nobody should buy this watch for its smartwatch capabilities. It's basically just a notification displayer.
The screen is big and easy to read. The watch is good-looking and understated. Not a single person stared at it or asked me about it while I was wearing it, and I'd call that a win for an activity-tracker. It's also more comfortable, and far more accurate than it was before.
The automatic sleep/walk/run/cycle tracking is really just fantastic. It makes the whole thing brainless, and that's the way it should be. The magnetic charging dock is absolutely great, and the app has come a long ways, even if it still has some distance to go. I also love that it's waterproof to 5ATM (while I never got anywhere near that depth I did take it on several swims in the ocean and it was just fine) and the backlight actually does its job.
I really wish you could use it like a heart rate strap for running apps like Runtastic. You have to wear the watch fairly snugly, and if you don't remember to clean it or give your wrist a break, you can get a rash. Or at least I can. No smartphone notifications until later this year. It can't monitor your heart while you swim.
One of the largest flaws is that the watch itself doesn't notify you on your progress toward your habits/goals. For example, if you're supposed to get up once an hour and it's been 70 minutes, a notification will pop up on your phone, but you'd have no idea unless you actually looked at phone. A simple buzz on your wrist and the words, "Get the hell up!" would work nicely. Basis says that feature is coming soon via a software update.
Should You Buy It?
Yeah, if you want an activity monitor, and you want it now. At $200, it's coming in on the higher end, but it's simply more capable and more accurate than any of the other activity trackers I've used to date. It gives you more data and helps you come up with a loose plan of action to improve. It's pretty comfortable, and in no way an eye-sore. You could wear it with a suit and I don't think anyone would look twice.
There are a lot of trackers coming down the pike, many of which will add Basisesque sensors and have mock-smartwatch capabilities, too. If you can wait, you should... but as of right now, this is my favorite.
Now, would I buy this over a real smartwatch like a Moto 360? Tough call. Probably not. I just don't think that dedicated fitness trackers are the bees knees, and I really like the deep integration with Android. A lot of people feel differently, though, and the Peak's four day battery life versus one day on an Android Wear watch is a pretty big deal, plus the whole sleep monitoring thing.
If a fitness monitor is what you want, this is the best fitness tracker I've seen. [Basis]